In a matter of days, “Taksim Square” has become a household name akin to Tahrir Square, shorthand for a youthful protest movement against the brutality of state power in the Middle East. What began last week as a peaceful sit-in to protest the uprooting of trees from Gezi Park, one of Istanbul’s last open green spaces near Taksim Square, has morphed into a broader Occupy movement against the Turkish government, with massive demonstrations in many Turkish cities, as well as solidarity demonstrations throughout the world. The movement shows the deep discontent within a large cross section of Turkish society against the increasingly authoritarian government, and especially its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of the ruling Islamist AKP party. People have reacted with shock at the Turkish police’s disproportionate, brutal repression of the protests, as well as Erdogan’s and other government officials’ apparent contempt for and vilification of the protestors, and their seeming indifference to their concerns. As the protest movement continues to unfold, there has been much analysis about the significance of the protests, the way they reflect class and identity divisions within Turkey and their possible repercussions, such as here, here and here.
The protests in Istanbul began with public dissatisfaction with urban planning: they reacted against the city’s ambitious ongoing plans to remake the square and its surroundings, that proceeded last week with the attempted uprooting of trees in Gezi Park, one of the last remaining open spaces in bustling, sprawling Istanbul. These grand plans have unfolded with little consultation with the public or those who live and work in that area. Daniel Jost aptly and succinctly describes these plans as “awful,” while Gokhan Karakus likens them to "a neo-Ottoman Las Vegas in [a] 6,000-year-old city."
The area of Taksim Square and Gezi Park have always been politically charged for the residents of Istanbul, who are now re-asserting their right to their city. Orhan Pamuk reminisces about the significance of Taksim square, tied to many social movements and demonstrations of the past (see here). In its present form, designed in the 40’s by the French urban planner Henri Prost, the Taksim area is a vibrant section of the city and a symbol of modern Istanbul. When I lived nearby as a Ph.D. student, Taksim and its surroundings were endlessly fascinating and unexpected, where you encountered the wealthiest and poorest of the city, old cosmopolitan Istanbulites as well as immigrants from the Black Sea region, anarchist students and Islamist conservatives.
For an architectural historian, it is no accident that both the great plans to remake Taksim, as well as the way protestors’ speeches and actions often invoke history and architectural memory to buttress their arguments in the present. Indeed, an interest in architectural history and the historical resonance of place is at the heart of the ambitious urban renewal plans as well the protests. The centerpiece of the municipality’s ambitious new plans is a rather garish re-creation of the early 19th c Ottoman imperial military barracks (Topçu Kislasi) demolished in 1940 to make way for Prost’s modern vision. The recreated barracks were to house commercial ventures. The interest in reviving Ottoman architecture fits with the sensibilities of what some call the neo-Ottoman Muslim elite, even if it is completely updated to suit contemporary needs of global capitalism and consumerism. A similar vision of history also informs the naming of the planned third bridge over the Bosphorus after Sultan Selim the Grim (r. 1512-1520).
In direct opposition, protestors are invoking counter-memories and counter-histories. Protestors object to the glorification of a sultan whom they remember for his persecution and massacres of the Alevis, a non-Sunni Muslim group. Back On Taksim square, protestors are invoking the Armenian cemetery expropriated to make way for that area’s development in the early decades of the Turkish republic. Their slogan is: “you took our cemetery, you won’t be able to take our park.”
Once at the edge of Istanbul’s urban conglomeration, the area was home to the Saint James Armenian cemetery, established in the 16th century, (in Turkish: Surp Agop Ermeni Mezarligi), and the 19th century church of St. Gregory the Illuminator. By the early 20th century, the area was becoming one of the most valuable sections of real estate in the city. As detailed here and here through a series of highly contested lawsuits, the municipality managed to appropriate the cemetery from the Armenian community. This process illustrates the relentless power of the state to dispossess a minority community that had survived the Genocide of the Ottoman Armenians in 1915-1922, and unfolds like a series of acts of cruelty and humiliation. As this map shows, the cemetery once stood in the area occupied today by sections of Gezi Park, and surrounding properties, including the TRT Istanbul Radio building and major hotels like the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed Istanbul Hilton (built in 1954). Marble headstones from the cemetery were used to build Gezi Park’s fountains and stairs. As Kerem Öktem clarifies (see here), further appropriations of property in this urban area, principally from non-Muslim (Armenian, Greek and Jewish) citizens continued to unfold over the 50s and 60s, producing the urban ensemble that stands today. (for more historical background on the area’s urbanism, see here)
Some protestors are memorializing this history of erasure, state power, and the growth of big business by renaming a street in the park after Hrant Dink, the iconic Turkish-Armenian journalist and human rights activist whose 2007 assassination so shook Turkish society (see here).
These are some of the many stories that are unfolding in Taksim, as the overwhelmingly youthful protestors seem to represent many different political viewspoints, from right-wing supporters of Kemalism to leftists, “Muslim ant-capitalists,” LGBT groups, even soccer fans. Gezi Park has now become a spontaneous community, a“festive village” in Michael Kimmelman’s words, that includes a kitchen, clinic, and even a museum of the protest movement.
Beyond a commentary against neoliberal urbanism, however, the protests have another crucial dimension: that of concern for environmental degradation and unsustainable urban policies, perhaps especially apparent in the debates surrounding the adverse impact of the planned bridge and canal on the ecosystem of the Marmara sea.
Where the protest movement in Turkey will go, and what it will or will not achieve remains to be seen. So far, we have been reminded once again, of the resonance of urban history, and the powerful role that public spaces and spatial memories can play in political mobilization.
Lady in a red dress. Protestor Ceyda Sungur was pepper sprayed at the start of the protests (Osman Orsal/Reuters); Protest Sign at Gezi Park (Nor Zartonk Istanbul)
HEGHNAR WATENPAUGH is a historian of art and architecture of the Middle East at the University of California Davis. She is interested in cultural heritage, gender, and space.